Animosity between fox hunters and their opponents is more heated than at any time since the hunting ban was introduced in Britain eight years ago, and both sides have urged caution ahead of the biggest hunting day of the year. A quarter of a million people are expected to attend a Boxing Day later today, with more than 45,000 on horseback. But as pro-hunters claim that "saboteurs" have "upped the ante" in recent months, their opponents respond that they are having to police a rise in illegal fox hunting themselves.
About 80 per cent of hunts surveyed by the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance say at least as many foxes are being killed now as before the ban came into force. Although the Hunting Act 2004 banned traditional hunting with hounds, exemptions allow landowners to flush out a fox from cover to be shot, using no more than two dogs. There are allegations of illegality and foul play by both camps. The RSPCA's successful prosecution last week of the Oxfordshire-based Heythrop Hunt, with which the Prime Minister David Cameron has ridden, for hunting a wild fox illegally further inflamed antipathy. A group of MPs and peers including Lord Heseltine have accused the animal rescuers of breaching charity regulations.
The League Against Cruel Sports said it had received almost three times as many calls about "suspicious" illegal hunting activity to its Wildlife Crimewatch line this year as it did in 2010. More than 60 per cent of the reports related to crimes against foxes. Joe Duckworth, the chief executive of the League, said: "There is a war in the countryside and we will get more calls than ever on Boxing Day this year." The organisation, which is investing an additional £1m in its operations team, has quadrupled the number of investigators working covertly in the field this season. The League said their data suggests "a heavy leaning towards illegal fox hunting".
The head of investigations at the League, Paul Tillsley, also believes tensions are higher than they have been for a while. Mr Tillsley was hit with a whip by David Bevan, from the West Somerset Vale Foxhounds, who admitted common assault. Mr Tillsley said: "Hunts have become more confident they can get away with things. It's back to the old days for them." The Countryside Alliance denied that illegal hunting was on the rise and stressed that it was still campaigning for the ban to be repealed. A spokesman said: "There are more than 300 registered hunts operating in the UK which carry out a combined total of around 20,000 days' hunting a year. Given the general level of confusion about hunting and the Hunting Act it is no surprise that the LACS receives a few hundred phone calls."